Baby Blues: Why the International Adoption Process Needs an Overhaul

Year-long waits, onerous assessments, and disappointment—prospective adopters in developed countries have a lot to deal with when trying to adopt a child. The scarcity of adoptable children and rigor of the adoption processes in developed countries drive prospective adopters abroad in the hope of finding children to join their families. Due to the prevalence of disease, poverty, and abandonment as well as fledgling social safety nets, less developed countries often have many children in state care that are in pressing need of adoption. In the latter half of the 20th century, many of these countries welcomed international adoption. Under that system, children were matched with more affluent parents who could provide better lives for them than could be expected in the state system, and overcrowded state children’s homes were relieved of the difficulty of caring beyond their capacities.

International law regards children’s best interests as paramount, but the current system leaves everyone underserved.

While international adoption is an ideal solution for both the overcrowding of state childcare systems in developing countries and the difficulties of adopting children in developed ones, it’s currently on the decline. Intercountry adoption fell by 64 percent between 2004 and 2013 in the top 10 adopting countries, indicating a seismic shift away from the practice of adopting children abroad. While modest gains in health and income mean fewer children are orphaned and abandoned, these factors alone do not explain the huge shift away from intercountry adoption. Rather, the decline is the result of an international law that tightens the regulatory barriers to intercountry adoption, decreasing its attractiveness to prospective adopters and increasing negative sentiments towards international adoption in countries where it used to be common.

International adoption experienced a huge boom toward the end of the 20th century, growing from about 2,500 adoptions per year in the 1950s to 40,000 in the early 2000s. In the 1990s, China’s one-child policy forced many people to give their babies up for adoption, and the fall of the Soviet Union destroyed Russia’s economy and left many unable to care for their children. Chinese and Russian orphanages were overcrowded, and they became the two leading origin countries for worldwide adoptions. In 2003, foreign parents adopted over 13,000 children from China and over 7,000 from Russia. The 10 main receiving countries (led by the United States, France, Spain, Italy, and Germany) accounted for 90 percent of children adopted by foreign parents. In most cases, the adoptions were a resounding success, placing children in loving homes and reducing the burden on overwhelmed social services.

However, for a minority of children, intercountry adoption was a disguised form of trafficking. Intermediaries could turn a profit by abducting and selling children to adoptive parents. In some circumstances, children were torn from family members who were coerced into giving them up, while others were returned to their home countries by their adoptive parents. For these reasons, intercountry adoption became a traumatic process for many children, and countries began to regulate it through international laws protecting children’s rights.

In 1993, the Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoption created laws that called for oversight from a centralized body and mandate that states thoroughly search for domestic adopters before resorting to adoption abroad. The convention has been signed by 90 countries, and it has effectively put tighter restrictions on all countries involved in international adoptions. For example, although South Korea is not a party to the convention, the US is, meaning that all intercountry adoptions from South Korea to the US must meet the terms of the agreement. This dynamic ultimately decreased the number of successful adoptions from South Korea to the US by 93 percent in 15 years. For top sending countries party to the convention, the agreement has put enormous strain on already overstretched bureaucracies, lengthening wait times and increasing rejection rates.

The result is tragic: Thousands of children who might have found loving parents will never be matched with prospective families, and will instead spend their childhood in foster care and state homes. There is no question that children’s rights must be protected in any adoption process, but policymakers should consider whether the decline in the number of adoptions resulting from the Hague Convention’s regulations necessitate a policy change. Policymakers should aim to create laws that both secure children’s rights and maximize the number of adoptions, internationally and domestically. Given the impossibility of improving domestic adoption systems in all states and the difficulty of finding biological relatives to adopt children, foreign adopters who pass standard background and means checks should be given adoption priority equal to domestic and biological adopters. International law regards children’s best interests as paramount, but the current system leaves everyone underserved.